A smoker’s brain works better when on nicotine because nicotine releases extra serotonin and dopamine in their brain. The two chemicals when released in extra quantity than the brain normally does, serve to improve cognitive brain functions such as clear thinking and brain’s power to memorize, etc.
When a smoker quits, the body begins to adjust to normal levels of chemicals, in reaction to which, the smoker feels different withdrawal symptoms. Nicotine withdrawal symptoms begin to appear very soon after the last cigarette.
A breakdown and analysis of nicotine withdrawal symptoms and their timeline are put forward before you to help you understand the nature of nicotine addiction and what it is like to give up the habit.
Nicotine Withdrawal Symptoms with Timeline
As soon as you put out the last cigarette, your body will start to come back to its normal state again. The need for another cigarette will quickly kick. Here’s a withdrawal timeline that represents what you might experience:
The Acute Phase: Week One
Many of the symptoms that manifest in week one continue throughout the entire withdrawal process, and can even linger after withdrawal is over. That is the nature of addiction. However, the first week is the hardest for smokers to make it through, as the body is normalizing after constant nicotine exposure.
Nicotine withdrawal symptoms can begin as early as 30 minutes after smoking a cigarette (or vaping an e-cig). Depending on how long a person has been smoking, and on how heavily they smoke, the effects of nicotine on the brain wears off anywhere between 30 minutes and 2 hours. It has a very short lifespan once introduced to the brain, and therefore must be delivered in very regular doses to maintain the ‘buzz’ that the brain is used to functioning on.
The earliest symptoms of nicotine withdrawal are usually cravings for a cigarette, followed by anxiety, anger, irritation, and a decrease in mental function causing attention problems and difficulty in completing some tasks. These symptoms can begin 30 minutes after smoking and continue to rise in intensity as time goes on. Most of these symptoms peak approximately 3-5 days after quitting, and then begin to taper off. That is because, by around day 3, the body has cleared itself of all of the nicotine from the last cigarette.
Physical symptoms throughout the first week include a headache, increased appetite, dizziness, constipation, stomach pain, fatigue, and insomnia. Also, many smokers begin to develop a tightness in the chest, begin to cough or notice an increase in mucus. This is because the respiratory system has begun to heal, and is in the process of removing the irritants that it was previously unable to do.
Other Common Withdrawal Side Effects
- Irritability. It’s common when you’re experiencing nicotine withdrawal to feel like you have a much shorter fuse than normal. Relatively small things that would ordinarily cause some stress can cause you to snap and become extremely irritable. Fortunately, this phase is short-lived, but you’ll want to give your loved ones a heads up and ask for their patience.
- Flu-like symptoms. While you’re getting off of nicotine, it’s normal to feel run down. You might feel like you’re coming down with a cold or even the flu and have symptoms like a cough, sinus pressure and congestion, a sore or dry throat, tightness in the chest and sweating.
- Headaches. Many people experience headaches when they’re withdrawing from nicotine. Researchers aren’t sure why headaches are so common during nicotine withdrawal, but it may have something to do with the fact that smoking constricts the blood vessels that lead to the brain and blood vessel changes in general are often linked to headaches.
- Insomnia or unusual dreams. Nicotine is a powerful psychoactive drug, so it’s not surprising that it can affect your sleep. Since nicotine is a stimulant and can help you stay awake, it might seem like the opposite would be true about the absence of nicotine when you’re trying to quit. While you might temporarily feel sleepier without the nicotine in your system, it might not be as easy to actually fall asleep because of the withdrawal symptoms. And when you do sleep, you might have strange or vivid dreams. These symptoms, too, will pass.
- Depression and anxiety. A lot of people with mild mental health conditions smoke, and it’s not just coincidence: there’s some evidence that smoking is a form of self-medicating and may help them to cope with symptoms like depression and anxiety. Withdrawal from nicotine can also cause increased depression and anxiety, but even if you already had those issues without smoking, the symptoms won’t be as intense after the first couple days off nicotine. Any positive effects from nicotine on mental health are very short lived.
- Nausea and other gastrointestinal issues. Nicotine has major effects on your appetite and digestion, so it makes sense that withdrawing from it could also affect those things. Although smoking can cause urgency with your bowels, nicotine withdrawal has more unpredictable effects and may either cause constipation or diarrhea.
- Problems with concentration. You weren’t imagining things if you thought that smoking improved your concentration: it probably actually did, although the effects were mild. Similarly, you may experience a temporary period of finding it harder to concentrate when you’re going through nicotine withdrawal. Some of this effect is physical, although some is also psychological.
- Intense cravings for more nicotine. Part of what makes smoking so addictive is because it is a psychological habit with conditioned responses to smoke in certain circumstances, reinforced by the way nicotine causes you to crave more of it. Because nicotine’s effects are so short lived, it drives you to want more of it as soon as possible.
The Long Haul: Weeks 2-4
The first week usually brings the majority of withdrawal symptoms. Moving into the following weeks, they gradually begin to fade away.
Insomnia: Usually resolves by the end of week one.
Fatigue: Energy levels may be low for 2-4 weeks.
Mental fatigue/feeling foggy: Mental clarity should begin to pick up in about two weeks.
Hunger: Appetite should return to normal in 2-4 weeks.
Stomach upset: Heartburn, nausea, and stomach pain taper around two weeks, constipation may last for up to 4 weeks.
Cough/Mucus production: These may persist past four weeks, although they often begin to get better in about 2-3 weeks.
Throughout the entire withdrawal process, from day one on, the biggest challenge will be the nicotine cravings and the stress that is associated with them. These cravings cause extreme anxiety and agitation. A hallmark of quitting cigarettes is the bad mood, high temper, and frustration that a smoker experiences. This desire for another cigarette can seem nearly constant throughout the first week. Over the next weeks, however, cravings begin to taper off. Fewer cravings are experienced, and they do not last as long as before.
As these cravings begin to go away, the associated mood disturbances also fade. Without constantly battling the desire to smoke again, stress levels go down. Edginess and shortness of temper can ease after week one, and then gradually smooth out over the next month, although some occasional outbursts may persist.
Restlessness and boredom are often the last side effects to cease. Smoking cigarettes fill time and have become a habit that is very hard to break. Without smoking, there is time during the day that needs to be occupied, and it is difficult to find ways to divert attention or to find new ways to spend that time. This sense of restlessness does gradually improve but is still something many quitters feel even past the 4-week mark.
Although insomnia should peak during weak only come sporadically through the next three weeks, fatigue and loss of concentration or mental ability may continue to be bothersome in weeks 2-4. Since nicotine is a stimulant, the body has learned to function with increased levels of chemicals like acetylcholine and vasopressin in the brain, which work to improve memory and enhance cognitive function.
Hunger or appetite increases can begin within the first 24 hours of withdrawal. The uptake of serotonin and dopamine act as an appetite suppressant, and when nicotine levels lower, appetite increases. Also, withdrawal often causes cravings for carbohydrates and sweets, and many smokers eat simply to replace the act of smoking. The first two weeks of this side effect are the worst, and then it also begins to normalize as more time passes. Associated weight gain is also considered a side effect, although the gain is usually very small, only 5-10 pounds. This weight gain may begin in the first week and slowly increase through weeks 2-4.
There is no real timeline for withdrawal symptoms because each quitting experience is unique. However, as a general rule of thumb, many of the physical symptoms like dizziness or a headache fade quickly and are not very severe. The emotional, mental, and behavioral symptoms tend to persist much longer and produce many more problems, but can be managed and overcome.
Coasting For Life: Week 5 – The Rest of Your Life
Once you get through the first month, the road ahead becomes much rosier. If you are at this point than give yourself a huge pat on the back! You’ve made it through the intense cravings, the emotional roller coaster, and the physical symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. Getting through one month without a cigarette is a big accomplishment, and you should reward yourself.
Now that the physical and mental symptoms of withdrawal have calmed down, you can relax…but not too much! You will have to remain vigilant for the rest of your life because relapse can happen even after years without a cigarette. One of the best ways to do this is to remind yourself of the hellstorm you experienced during the first month of quitting.
Mental cravings will still pop up from time to time, especially in the first year, but they won’t be anything near the level of the first month. Beware of situations where you will be around a lot of tobacco smoke or around folks that you used to smoke with. Constantly remind yourself that things, like taking a smoke break with the smokers or having a cigarette on the first day of spring, are not worth going through the trouble of quitting again.
You will also have to deal with “smoking nostalgia” for the rest of your life. You’ll remember the good times you had while smoking or the feeling of a cigarette after a meal or in the morning. Don’t let yourself get sentimental! For every cigarette that felt great, there were hundreds more that you didn’t want to smoke but had to because your addiction demanded it.
The rest of your life will be filled with temptations and thoughts that could drive you back to the pack. These thoughts and temptations can catch you off-guard because you’re not so intensely focused on quitting as you were in the first few weeks.
If you are still in the first month of quitting or have yet to start the quitting process yet, then take this section as a reminder that the effects of quitting will soon fade into a healthier, happier and smoke-free lifestyle! Right now you may be dealing with intense cravings, emotional turbulence, and mental anguish, but within a few short weeks, those will fade into small mental temptations that you can easily swat away as you go on with your cigarette-less life.
How to Beat Nicotine Withdrawal
Keep in mind: cravings pass quickly. The average nicotine craving only lasts about six minutes. That’s not even enough time to go up to the store and buy a new pack of cigarettes! So when that urge to smoke strikes, know that it will be over really quickly.
Take comfort in numbers. There are now more people who are former smokers who quit than there are people who are active smokers. When you want to give up the habit, know that you have a lot of very good company. About 50 million Americans used to smoke but successfully quit. When the going gets tough, remind yourself that millions of people have made it through the tough experience of quitting.
Change up your routines. Your smoking habit is probably very predictable, and most likely, you smoke at the same times every day. Each time you do so, you’re reinforcing the habit. For example, you may smoke shortly after you wake up, again on the drive to work, after eating meals, etc. When you quit, you’ll need to change your associations at those times. Consider ideas like taking a different route to work or chewing a piece of gum after a meal instead of smoking.
Hold yourself accountable. Telling people that you are quitting smoking is a great way to be accountable – and get support from other people in the process. If you post on your Facebook page that you’re quitting smoking and update each day with the number of days it has been without a cigarette, you’ll be surprised by how much encouragement you’ll get from your friends and how much that drives you to keep going.
Make up your mind. Mindset determines a lot when it comes to success in quitting smoking. You may find it effective to make a list of all the reasons you want to quit – from saving hundreds of dollars a month to not smelling like smoke – and keep that list close at hand to look at when you start feeling discouraged. The list can help remind you of your motivation.
Create some healthy new habits. If you have to give up your old habits, it’s a great time to replace them with new ones. Consider beginning some positive new habits like snacking on healthier foods, like fruits and vegetables, and getting regular exercise like taking a walk. Exercise can also help you fight some of the more uncomfortable symptoms of nicotine withdrawal like mood swings.
Get extra sleep. You might feel more tired than usual when you’re in the process of quitting smoking because of the effects of nicotine withdrawal. Because nicotine is a stimulant, it can help you feel unnaturally alert and like you need less sleep. Your body has to adapt to not having that artificial stimulation anymore, but you can take heart in knowing that this sleepy phase will pass. If you feel like you need a nap, take one! In addition to helping you temporarily escape from any discomfort from nicotine withdrawal, it will also help your body to heal.
Strategies for Success: Coping with Nicotine Withdrawal
Have a support system. Going through tough experiences is always easier when you can turn to friends and loved ones for emotional support. Assemble your team of cheerleaders in advance and let them know you might need a listening ear or a distraction during moments when quitting smoking is at its hardest. Ask for their patience if you’re a little grumpy. You’ll find that the people who love you want to help you get through this time because you’ll be so much healthier when you successfully quit smoking.
Reward yourself. Giving up smoking has many benefits for your health, but that doesn’t mean that quitting is its only reward. Reward yourself with little treats for resisting the urge to smoke. Consider letting yourself have a Hershey’s kiss when you feel like having a cigarette. Or if you’re trying to watch your weight, allow yourself a latte or a magazine as a treat for every pack of cigarettes you don’t buy. Give yourself slightly bigger rewards for more time that you successfully avoid smoking, like a movie date or new CD after a week of not smoking.
Keep your hands busy. That familiar feeling of holding a cigarette between your fingers is one of the most powerful associations for most smokers and is likely to be one of the first ways you’ll feel like something is missing when you quit. Head off this feeling by having things to do to keep your fingers busy. Knitting or crocheting, woodworking or even a game on your phone can be good distractions and replacements for that nervous habit.
Think positively. Your thoughts are powerfully influential. If you tell yourself that quitting smoking is going to be miserable and hard, you’ll have a very difficult experience. It doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to successfully quit, just that it will be harder than it has to be. Instead, prime yourself for quit-smoking success by repeatedly telling yourself that you can quit and the process will be challenging but bearable. Believe that you can do it, and you will!